Sheeple (What are sheep like in popular culture)
In preparation for today’s sermon, I was doing some digging on different cultural understandings of lambs. I found this movie called “Silence of the lambs,” but was disappointed to find that there were no lambs in it.
More recently in pop culture and politics the term “sheeple ” – a play on words for sheep like people, is tossed around on social media to label people who cannot think for themselves. And I have seen this on both sides of the political spectrum. The opposite side gets labeled as sheep that are led astray and follow along with what they are told without thinking critically. It is funny how both sides think that the other side are sheep who cannot think for themselves. Both the woke and the QAnon conspirator get called sheep. And Perhaps we all are.
Sheep get a bad rap. They are often described as docile and unable to make decisions for themselves. Sheep get “led astray,” and willingly follow shepherds and are easily led. They are thought of as unable to defend themselves.
John Calls Jesus a Lamb of God – What is happening in John
In our passage today in the gospel of John, Jesus gets called a lamb by John the Baptist. And in this case, I think he is going for a compliment. A “Lamb of God.” A baby sheep. What might it mean for Jesus to be called a sheep? What does it mean for God to be “Sheep-like?”
And to be totally transparent, while this is the lectionary text, some of this sermon might be inspired by the angst I felt to days following helping Farmer Ray slaughter some of his sheep.
Last week, Jackie Wyse-Rhodes preached on the opening of the book of John. What is central in John is the incarnation. We get this right off the bat with that opening. Jesus is God’s word – Not just the bible, Jesus’ life is God’s word. What Jesus says and does, his identity and mission, words and works, life and death are a glimpse into the nature of God. And today, I’d like to really consider the glimpse of God that we might get from this name that John the Baptist gives Jesus in this passage – “The Lamb of God.”
Images of Lamb in Hebrew Bible, and how might they inform what Jesus might be compared to (stories from today that might compare)
What might Jesus as the “Lamb of God” reveal about the nature of God. Is God lamb-like? Is God sheep-ish? Both in the play on words of being lamb-like, but also perhaps in the literal sense of the word, hesitant or humble, non-controlling.
Lambs are one of the most common animals in the Bible. Because the book of John was a Jewish Christian text, written for Jewish Christians, the earliest readers of John would have been familiar with what their Hebrew scriptures would have said about sheep. So, to consider what it might of meant for the early readers to think of Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” what I would like to do this through looking at some “Sheep” passages from the Hebrew bible, And to look at a few ways that these passages have been interpreted, and how that might inform our understanding of Jesus the “Lamb of God” and as a result, inform our understanding of God.
Again, the following passages are what John’s listeners might have thought of when Jesus is called the “Lamb of God.”
Throughout the book of the prophet Isaiah, lamb imagery is used often. So, the first Hebrew bible image of a lamb that we are going to look at is in Isaiah 11:6 and I am going to be dubbing this Isaiah 11:6 lamb, the “Lamb of possibility.”
Most of us are familiar with Isaiah 11: 6
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
and a little child will lead them.
The Authors of Isaiah are dreaming of a future where the most violent of animals are in harmony with the most docile, and all are being led by a little child. They are dreaming of the possibility of the impossible. A new world where violence and oppression are not the rule of the land.
Martin Luther King Jr., who’s national holiday is tomorrow, continued this prophetic image of the Lamb when he said
“I still believe that one day humankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every person shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.” I still believe that We Shall overcome!”
This kingdom that Dr. King is prophetically speaking about is not one of power held through violence, but a future that at one time felt impossible- one of equality and peace. The lion lying with the lamb – a symbol of a just and peaceful future. What good is dreaming of an impossible future?
Womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes that “A moral imagination envisions Isaiah’s “new heaven and new earth” where the ‘wolf and the lamb shall feed together’” Brown Douglas writes, when reflecting on the Police murdering of Black Americans that, “It is with a moral imagination that the mother of Trayvon confidently said in a recent interview, “there will be a change because God is going to intervene.” It is no doubt because of their moral imaginations that the women who are the mothers of Trayvon, Michael, Eric and Tamir are able carry forth in the struggle for a change in the way things are.”
Well, If we are not open to change – if we are not open to the spirit moving within our community – open to dreaming of a future that is just and peaceful, how can such a future come into existence. Jesus, in this version of the lamb, invites us into his kingdom that feels impossible. But it is this possibility of the impossible that keeps hope alive.
Perhaps Jesus is the lamb in Isaiah 11:6 – the lion lying with lamb – the “Lamb of Possibility”
This next image of a lamb, from Isaiah 53, I like to think of as the “Lamb of vulnerability”
Isaiah 53:7 goes,
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
Some Scholarship suggests that this portion of Isaiah was written around 540 B.C. during the transition between the Babylonian empire and the Persian empire. The Israelites would have been tossed around in these imperial transitions – and justice may have seemed very distant. How unfair that the servant in this passage, who is often talked about as Jesus in Christian circles, was both oppressed, and then killed – like a lamb led to the slaughter. This Christ figure, instead of continuing cycles of violence, chooses to vulnerably enter the violence and end the cycle of retributive violence.
I remember reading this Isaiah passage being quoted by an early anabaptist, but could not remember who it was, so I had some help from Gerald Mast a few weeks ago locating this anabaptist.
Dutch Anabaptist Jacques d’Auchy was imprisoned in 1558 and executed on March 4, 1559 in the city of Leeuwarden. d’Auchy made the connection between Jesus the “Lamb of God” and Isaiah 53. He said, “Because it is written that the son of God was led as a ‘lamb to the slaughter, and opened not his mouth;’ hence his children must be of such a nature, since they are born of God.”
d’Auchy argues for a pacifist posture stating, “nor can I conceive that it can be the nature of a lamb to kill and devour a wolf.”
For d’Auchy , Jesus the “Lamb of God” is a “call to non-violence” – a call to vulnerability and courage to step forward even if it means that you are killed.
Now, this type of theology has its issues and these issues have presented themselves in the Mennonite church. Women have been told implicitly- and explicitly to be sacrificial lambs. To take on the burns of their relationships, and told to keep quiet and to be non-violently sacrificial in situations of abuse. This type of peace theology, without considering justice for women, has been harmful to women and has maintained cycles of abuse instead of creating change. Non-violent pacifism, without justice, can easily turn into abuse. However, we also know that vulnerable, non-violent direct action can create just change as well. When considering the lamb of vulnerability, we have to hold both how nonviolence has maintained oppression, and in other cases has been the impetus for liberation.
The Passover Exodus 12:1-3
The last Hebrew bible image that I would like for us to consider is the Passover lamb in Exodus 12. I am thinking of this lamb in this story as the “Lamb of Solidarity”
The most famous use of lamb in the Hebrew Bible is perhaps in the story of the “Passover,” And I can give a brief retelling of this story. The Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt. As one of the plagues, God threatens to kill all first born children in Egypt, except for the ones that have lamb blood over their doors. In this case, the spirit would “Passover” the doors with lamb blood, and kill the first born humans in the homes without the lamb blood. The invitation to place the lamb blood on the doorway was a promise from God that God would Passover and protect them.
As I am explaining this, I largely have the imagery of the movie “The ten commandments” in my mind, and the screams and shouts of families as a scary fog passes through Egypt, killing their first born children. I was terrified as a kid of this image of God being like fog that comes and kills many people including pharaoh’s son. I mean I had a little bit of comfort knowing that I wasn’t a first born. But honestly could not wrap my head around how this is a loving image of God.
In the Jewish tradition, the story of the Passover, is a story of liberation. It is God using literally and disturbingly using whatever means necessary to free the Hebrews from the oppressive Egyptians. And the lamb is what kept them safe from “the Lord” in this process of liberation. The lamb in fact is resisting “the Lord” and keeping the oppressed Israelites safe from some sort of birth-order based genocide.
Mentor of Martin Luther King Jr, and Christian Mystic Howard Thurman writes that when considering armed resistance as an option for liberation, that it’s an easy option. It’s an option that provides activity and action. “Something must be done!” Thurman considers violent resistance a form of fanaticism and that in this form of thinking, any sort of push back against violent resistance is cowardice and a compromise. Thurman said that this was the energy of the Zealots in Jesus’ day. And considers Jesus’ way as an alternative. Thurman believes that it is Jesus’ humility where true power comes from.
Thurman’s understanding of Jesus focuses on the underprivileged, and sees Christianity as a faith that functioned as a technique of survival for the oppressed. It was only in the centuries after that it became a religion of the powerful and dominant and even used as an instrument of oppression. Thurman warns that we should not be tempted into believing this oppressive, powerful, and dominant version of Christianity was Jesus’ idea.
Like Thurman’s understanding of Jesus’ focus on the underprivileged, The Passover lamb was also an act of solidarity with the oppressed Israelites.
If this is the Lamb that Jesus is being compared to, it is a lamb that is in solidarity with the oppressed Israelites – evening willing to be killed to protect the enslaved Israelites, and as a result, a part of the liberation of Hebrew people. “The Lamb of solidarity”
All powerful vs a sheepish God
So there we have it; The “Lamb of possibility,” which is the hope for the impossible – of the lion and lamb together. Then we have the “Lamb of vulnerability” – the lamb that is led to the slaughter instead of continuing cycles of violence. And the “Lamb of solidarity,” The Passover lamb that protects and liberates the marginalized and enslaved Israelites.
Now, I am not really sure if any of these Hebrew bible images
of lambs are what “Lamb of God” might mean- but one thread that sees through all three of them, is that the lamb is not acting in controlling, powerful ways. The lamb dreams of a world of peace, the lamb is vulnerable, and it acts in solidarity with the oppressed. This is not a coercive controlling power. But in fact what Philosopher/Theologian John Caputo calls the power of powerlessness. Powerlessness that imagines a world of peace, vulnerability and solidarity.
Caputo writes that “One of the most fundamental fantasies of religion is the fantasy of power.” I think most of us know this intuitively. We have seen how religion has been closely tied to power throughout history. Within our own Christian tradition, church and state have been deeply intertwined and continue to be even in a country that has freedom of religion as one of its basic freedoms. We have seen how religion has been used to push political agendas. We have seen how religion has been used powerfully to justify violence and wars, to marginalize other races, to oppress LGBTQ rights, destroy the environment, and the classic list of -ism goes on. This is not the “Lamb of God.”
So one of my questions is – regardless if God has unlimited power or not – how does imagining God as all powerful, influence how we as Christians live out our faith.
Do we too think that our faith gives us power? Power that has us Christians imagine that we are better than others- more powerful than others, that we can change and manipulate our world? Power like the image of the Lord who comes to kill the firstborn? The fantasy of religious power.
Caputo writes that “The name of God is the name of an unconditional promise not of unlimited power.” The lamb of God is not an image of a God that has come to coerce. It’s an image of loyalty – of promise perhaps like a lamb following along -there with you. The power of this kind of powerlessness is the power of the lamb. A lamb perhaps willing to jump in with wolves to risk bringing about a prophetic reality of the Lion and lamb. A lamb perhaps walking with us as we risk non-violence in the face of slaughter. Perhaps lamb giving its blood, its life-source, to be part of the liberation of an oppressed group. Perhaps instead of trying to control and manipulate the world around us, we are being encouraged to live more like the “Lamb of God” – the lamb of “Possibility,” “vulnerability” and “solidarity.”
What does it mean for a community like FMC to be more lamb-like? What does it look like for us to dream as a community about the possibilities of peace and justice – dreaming for a reality where the lion and lamb lie together. What does it look like for FMC to step into the world with vulnerability… risking stepping into the terrifying unknowns of faith, like a lamb led to the slaughter. What does it look like for FMC to value living in solidarity with oppressed peoples – like the Passover lamb in the liberation of the Israelites in Egypt.
This next year, FMC is going to be doing some practicing of dreaming, vulnerability, and solidarity. In 2023, we will be asking the question as a community, “When then shall we do?” What then shall we do in response to issues of social injustice that exist in our community, country, and world? Once a month we are going to have a Sunday focused on a different topic of social injustice, where a member from the church will share their experiences navigating an injustice. Then, after the service, we will have a potluck and a chance to discuss as a community, “What then shall we do?” A chance to dream of possibilities for this church to respond, to vulnerably ask questions and share experiences, and to seek ways to live in solidarity with those who experience injustice. May we seek the way of the “Lamb of God.”
May the spirit of God find you like a little lamb. Dreaming with you an impossible world of peace and justice, leading you into vulnerability and nonviolence, and drawing you into solidarity with the oppressed.